It would be misleading to call Visiting Associate Prof. of English David Means a literary newcomer. He’s written four critically acclaimed short story collections, and his work has been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and elsewhere. But Means concedes that having his inaugural novel nominated for one of modern fiction’s most prestigious awards, the Man Booker Prize, “does re-orient me on the literary map.”
Published in the spring of this year, Hystopia is a dark, disturbing, and sometimes surprisingly funny tale of fictional America in the 1970s. It’s a novel within a novel, written by a young Vietnam War veteran who chronicles the mental and emotional toll the prolonged war is taking on its soldiers and the dysfunction it is triggering both within the government and throughout the country. Means says he coined the word ‘hystopia’ “because I was creating a dystopian novel in a specific historical moment. But I was thinking about the word ‘hysteria,’ too.”
Hystopia is one of only 13 novels nominated this year for the Man Booker Prize, given annually to the author of a new work of fiction that has been published in the United Kingdom. Past winners include J.M. Coetzee for The Life and Times of Michael K, Kazuo Ishiguro for Remains of the Day, and Yann Martel for Life of Pi. “It’s gratifying to be in such company,” Means says. “When you’re writing a novel, nobody cares if you finish it or publish it. It’s a solitary exercise, and motivation has to come from within, so it was nice to be publically recognized.”
Means was born and raised in the blue-collar city of Kalamazoo, MI, and some of his family’s neighbors served in Vietnam. “I always knew I wanted to write about the Vietnam War,” he says. “It had a profound effect on my community and in some personal way on my family, and I remember as a child asking my father if I was going to have to go.”
The city of Flint and the wilds of rural Michigan are the principal settings for the book, and some of his characters are based on real people he knew there, he says. One of the main characters, a psychopathic killer named Rake, was a product of his imagination, Means says, but he adds, “Unfortunately, Rake was an easy character to draw, given current events in our society.”
Means wrote a draft of the novel several years ago after conducting research into the war and its veterans, but he had difficulty carving out the time to finish it. “There was a certain amount of pressure from my publisher to write a novel, so a few years ago, I cranked out a rough draft, then let it sit,” he says.
Means finally had a chunk of time to tackle the novel after he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for the 2013-2014 academic year. “The stars finally aligned and I said to myself, ‘OK, it’s time to do this; you better get this done.’ And during that Guggenheim year, I’d shut off my wifi and go to my study and not come out until I’d done a substantial amount of work.”
A key element of the novel focuses on the government’s draconian response to the mental and emotional difficulties returning solders were having. Means says he researched the topic extensively, and while doing so, discovered the work of renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Jonathan Shay, who published a book comparing experiences of Vietnam veterans with those described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Shay, one of the foremost authorities on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other forms of emotional trauma, wrote a testimonial for the book, and a number of military veterans have thanked Means for spotlighting the issue. And while he’s glad the book’s popularity has helped advance the dialogue about how to help those who are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Means cautions that his novel doesn’t offer any solutions. “A work of fiction doesn’t provide answers, but it should raise more questions,” he says. “I hope it becomes part of the bigger conversation about the nature of war and its effect on the country and on the individuals who fight these wars that seem to go on and on.”
Coincidentally, Means’ teaching career at Vassar began the week of Sept. 11, 2001. He had a class scheduled just a few hours after the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were attacked. “I wasn’t sure what to do, so I decided to teach for an hour – we were talking about Edgar Allen Poe and his idea of the Imp of the Perverse [Poe’s metaphor for man’s urges to do evil things]. When I came out of the classroom, the towers had fallen and the world was changed forever.”
This semester, Means is teaching a freshman writing seminar and a senior writing seminar. He says the work is consistently challenging and always gratifying. “Teaching is incredibly fulfilling; you’re perpetually in contact with youth, and you’re always getting fresh ideas,” he says, adding, “I like teaching undergraduates because they’re open-hearted, just testing the waters, and they don’t think in professional terms. They’re writing to discover who they might be on the page.
“I try very hard to respect and guide each student, the unique process and vision each one of them has, and not to force them to write the way I write,” Means continues. “Mostly, I tell them, ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’ You can’t be afraid to make mistakes. I’ve tried writing novels before and they were monstrosities.
“I like being on an equal plane with my students,” Means says. “We’re all writers, and it never stops being hard, and it never stops being fun and interesting.”
Asked what’s next in his literary career, Means says he will soon publish a book of some of his most recent published short stories, “and, of course, I’m thinking about that second novel.”
Will the second one be easier than the first one?
Means flashes a quick smile. “It better be.”
Photos: Karl Rabe